The New York Times has a great story about police officers using the stop, question, and frisk tactic in Brownsville, Brooklyn — one of the many areas designated an “impact zone” under commissioner Ray Kelly. Those zones are flooded with police officers, often new recruits, who reinforce small quality-of-life crimes like having an open alcohol container in public and questioning folks who appear to be loitering on the street in an effort to prevent bigger, more violent crimes. The department is pretty open about the point, too: If they arrest someone for something as mundane as jumping a turnstile in the subway, or for blocking pedestrians on the sidewalk (which is one of the shadier subsections of the disorderly conduct statute), then officers can search them incident to a lawful arrest and find out if they have a weapon. The same is true if officers begin questioning someone and can articulate a reasonable suspicion that they have a weapon. Making “furtive movements” was one of the most commonly cited reasons for a frisk.
The officers stop people they think might be carrying guns; they stop and question people who merely enter the public housing project buildings without a key; they ask for identification from, and run warrant checks on, young people halted for riding bicycles on the sidewalk.
For residents like those in Brownsville, it can mean feeling like they live in a police state. It’s a difficult situation, because it certainly seems to deter people from carrying guns, but it also means individuals can be stopped by police at nearly any time. That not only helps corrode the neighborhood’s trust in officers but also means many young people grow up in a situation that can feel like a prison already. This is especially true for the city’s housing developments, in which officers can ask for identification from just about any person they see in the hallway. In neighborhoods like Brownsville, residents feel singled out by the department, because they are.
For two years, I worked for a New York City agency that investigated civilian complaints of police misconduct; complaints about stop-and-frisk and other issues that dealt with abuse of authority were among the most common and the most subtle. Part of the problem with the investigation system is that it is hard to hold an individual officer accountable for department-wide policies and tactics. And officers could always articulate, in their interviews, a reasonable suspicion of something, even though it often seemed as though they were reciting lines from the patrol guide. As Adam wrote in discussing the Oscar Grant case, officers assume a level of violence in many communities separate from facts because American culture fears black men. If officers enter a situation in which they believe everyone has a propensity for violence, then every action that person makes can be “furtive.” At its most extreme, that level of fear, and the idea that we should treat some communities as if they are to be feared, can lead to senseless death. But every day it leads to contentious interactions, small and large, with police officers that can wear away at a person’s sense of freedom.